In the backseat of my car, Niki, age eight and Tammie, age four happily sang along with me, “A-b-c-d-e-f-g!” I stopped singing as we entered the outskirts of town. My older daughter finished the song with her little sister.
As my daughters began to chatter to each other after the song, I thought about how long it had taken Tammie to learn how to talk. She had been fully three and a half years old. My wise pediatrician advised me not to worry, “She’ll begin speaking when she’s ready. She’s been busy concentrating on getting over her medical problems and surgeries.”
I would have worried more, but Tammie’s ability to communicate without words was so good that some nurses at the hospital thought she had used words instead of eye contact and gestures!
Tammie was born with Thrombocytopenia with Absent Radius syndrome, TAR for short. Besides missing both of her fore arms, her body made too few blood platelets, had leg deformities and intestinal problems. Until age three, she was hospitalized frequently for blood transfusions, leg surgeries and complications. The last complication resulted in an emergency tracheostomy shortly after her third birthday. I had commented to my husband, Arnie, “Tammie will probably learn how to speak soon, now that it’ll be a bigger challenge.”
That is exactly what happened! At first air escaped from her trach hole when she spoke, but eventually she managed to control that. No one taught her, she taught herself.
A year later, when Tammie was five and a half, she entered kindergarten and did well both scholastically and socially.
When Tammie started first grade, her class began to learn how to read the letters they’d been taught the year before. Her teacher asked the children to practice reading at home for ten minutes every evening. Each day I listened to Tammie as she stumbled through sounding out words and consistently getting caught on the simple words, “the, saw and was”.
I felt dismayed. Was this going to yet another problem due to her TAR syndrome? At parent-teacher’s conference her teacher, Flavia, assured me that Tammie was a very bright little girl and was doing fine.
With a big laugh Flavia informed me, “I found Tammie turning her workbooks upside down and attempting to read and write in them that way. I asked her, ‘Why are you doing that?’”
Tammie answered, “I can’t reach the top of the page.”
Flavia said, “I told her to get up on her knees so she could reach the top of the page.”
By the time the second quarter of first grade came to a close, Tammie was still stumbling through the simplest sentences. Over and over I helped her with the words, ‘the, saw and was.’ It was as if she couldn’t remember, although only a minute had passed since the last time she had come upon the word.
Christmas vacation finally came and I backed off on our daily reading practice. With the holiday landing where it did in the week, school vacation was a full two weeks long that year.
The night before school restarted, I sat down with Tammie to have her practice reading. To my great astonishment, not only did my daughter read smoothly over difficult words, she never even paused before correctly pronouncing ‘the, saw and was’!
While discussing the change with Arnie, I exclaimed, “What happened to make her suddenly understand?” Arnie didn’t know and suggested I ask her teacher.
Picking up the telephone, I dialed Flavia’s number. I explained to her how Tammie could now suddenly read the words she had struggled with all fall. I ended with the same question, “What happened to make her suddenly understand?”
Flavia said, “I’ve seen this happen before. When there’s a two-week vacation over the Christmas holiday, some children come back to school able to understand what they couldn’t before the vacation.”
In my mind, all the success my daughter has since had in education could be attributed to that special island of time around the Christmas and New Year holidays, the year she was in first grade. She graduated from high school, earned two Bachelor of Art degrees, one in Spanish and the other in History, plus a Master’s Degree in Information and Library Science! There were a few hic-cups in the road between Tammie singing, “a-b-c-d-e-f-g” in the backseat of my car as a four-year-old and her degrees, but Tammie is now a successful, independent adult.